Assessing the potential of crop diversity to increase soil biodiversity and the delivery of associated ecosystem services

This project aims to quantify the potential of crop diversity to increase soil biodiversity at different trophic levels and how that relates to the delivery of soil ecosystem services.

Department: Agri-Environment

Supervised by: Prof. Simon G Potts

The Placement Project

The design of landscapes based on ecological intensification of agriculture, which aims to maintain or enhance agricultural production through the promotion of biodiversity and associated ecosystem services, can potentially enhance food security sustainably. Crop diversification at a rotational scale is one approach proposed as a way to ecologically intensify food production. The overall aim of the PhD associated with this project is to evaluate a range of ecosystem services associated with the relative diversity of different crop rotations. It forms part of the large-scale EU LIBERATION project (Linking farmland biodiversity to ecosystem services for effective ecological intensification). The placement will specifically focus on the relationships between the different rotations and soil biodiversity at different trophic levels and how that relates to soil nutrient cycling. The study will benefit from state of the art experimental infrastructure already in place at Sonning farm where the rotations have been established since 2013. Earthworm (Lumbricina spp.) abundance and diversity to eco-functional level will be assessed in the field and soil samples will be taken at key stages in the growing season and taken to the lab for nematode (Nematoda spp.) extractions, count and identification to trophic level. Soil nutrient availability and yield quality and quantity will also be assessed.


Fieldwork will take place at Sonning Farm and all sample processing and analyses will be done at the Crops Research Unit (CRU Sonning Farm), the School of Agriculture (SAPD) and the School of Archaeology Geography and Environmental Science (SAGES) laboratories. The student will be working with three PhD students, Erika Degani, Samuel Leigh and Marijke Struijk currently working on the project. Training for all the tasks listed below will be provided: Fieldwork: • Earthworm abundance assessment in the field (2 days) • Soil sampling for nematode analyses (1 day) • Soil sampling for carbon and nitrogen analyses (1 day) • Yield collection (1 day) Lab work: • Earthworm identification to eco-functional level (2 weeks) • Nematode extraction, count and identification to trophic level (2 weeks) • Analyses of soil carbon and nitrogen content (2 days) • Yield processing (1 day) • Grain quality analyses (1 day) Office work: • The student will be given guidance on statistical analyses so they can draw conclusions from their findings (1 day)

Skills, knowledge and experience required

Qualifications: • In the process of acquiring a degree in a related subject i.e. agriculture, ecology, environmental science, biology Essential Skills and Knowledge: • Some field and lab work experience • Ability to rigorously follow protocols • Attention to detail • Ability to work independently • Genuine interest in the subject area • Flexibility Desirable Skills and Knowledge: • Basic knowledge of arable systems and soil biodiversity and ecosystem services and experience with any of the methodology used would be an advantage.

Skills which will be developed during the placement

This is a great opportunity for a student looking to broaden their knowledge of the research process from beginning to end as well as gain practical experience on established laboratory and field techniques in ecological and agricultural sciences. The student will have the opportunity to learn practical skills such as ecological sampling methods and how to identify key groups of soil organisms such as nematodes and earthworms. Additionally, he/she will also learn sampling and analyses techniques for soil carbon and nitrogen and yield quantity and quality parameters. The student will also benefit from being part of a multi-disciplinary established long-term PhD project as data collected from the experiment will be put into the broader context of the PhD and published in peer-reviewed publications, thus giving the student the opportunity to potentially co-author a scientific paper. Additionally, if successful, this project will run in conjunction with another potential UROP project, led by Dr Tom Sizmur looking at different taxa, mites (Acari spp.) and springtails (Callembola spp.) in the same context. This will give the student the opportunity to interact with other UROP students and potential to gain knowledge which goes beyond the scope of this project alone.

Place of Work

Most of the work will take place on campus at the School of Agriculture Policy and Development (SAPD) and at the School of Archaeology Geography and Environmental Science (SAGES) and some at the Crops Research Unit (CRU Sonning Farm). The farm is accessible by bus or bicycle from Reading. Lifts could potentially be available.

Hours of Work


Approximate Start and End Dates (not fixed)

Thursday 01 June 2017 - Saturday 30 September 2017

How to Apply

CV and covering letter should be submitted to Erika Degani (, applicants will be shortlisted for interview after the closing date.

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